I am a pastor of a relatively small church. Well, if statistics are correct it would be more accurate to say our congregation is just under the median size of churches in the United States. Nevertheless, we aren’t big. We have no marketing budget. We’re not on the cutting edge of anything. We don’t have an endless list of programs. We’re not into flashy or snazzy youth groups. We’ll never have a large administrative staff. Also to be quite honest, we’ll probably never see our membership skyrocket. But we do concentrate on those things that matter most–preaching, sacraments, prayer, and fellowship.
I love my church! My wife and I have frequently commented to each other how grateful we are that this is the church our children will always call home. They know everyone and are known by everyone. They have adults of all ages who love them fiercely, invest in them deeply, pray for them often, guard them carefully, and encourage them sincerely. I can honestly say I wouldn’t want it any other way.
That’s why I was, at least in part, so shocked (even offended) when I heard mega-church pastor Andy Stanley denounce those who prefer or choose smaller churches without big youth groups as being selfish. I’m not one that usually gets offended about such things, but here’s what he said:
So, when I hear adults say, ‘I don’t like a big church, I like about 200, I wanna be able to know everybody,’ I say ‘You are so stinkin’ selfish. You care nothing about the next generation. All you care about is you and your five friends. You don’t care about your kids, anybody else’s kids.’ And they’re like, ‘What’s up?’ I’m saying, if you don’t go to a church large enough where you can have enough middle schoolers and high schoolers to separate them so they can have small groups and grow up local church, you are a selfish adult. Get over it. Find yourself a big ole’ church where your kids can connect with a bunch of people, and grow up and love the local church. Instead, what you do (can you tell I’m passionate about this? Yeah!), here’s what you do. I mean I’m so sick of this. I hear this all the time ‘I just don’t like a big church.’ Well okay, so look here’s what you do. You drag your kids to a church they hate, and then they grow up and hate the local church…Don’t attend a church that teaches your children to hate church.
In case you’re wondering the context didn’t make it any better. Now, to be fair, Stanley took to Twitter and issued his apology: “The negative reaction to the clip from last weekend’s message is entirely justified. Heck, even I was offended by what I said! I apologize.” I understand all pastors make certain missteps. Ours is a ministry of verbal communication so it’s bound to happen! So I don’t want to make this simply about Stanley’s misstep despite what the title may suggest. But I do think Stanley’s comments betray a common expectation and attitude many have about the church.
What’s Your Expectation?
I assume asking that question is probably like asking a room full of people what topping they’d like on their pizza. No one can agree. I’m always fascinated to learn what people expect. There’s those who expect rock-band worship. Others expect a long list of programs and small groups. Still others have a seemingly hopeless list of expectations. But what is of particular interest to me is Stanley’s singular expectation: youth groups. I don’t think he’s alone. Years ago I was a member of a small church and in a season of need offered to help out with the three or four youth in the church. We did the best we could with what we had available. During that time a new family arrived. They really appreciated the preaching, leadership, theology, and fellowship of the church. But the youth group was simply too small for their kids and so they left the congregation.
Now, I don’t want to diminish for a moment the vital place children have in the church. After all, they are covenant children, inheritors of the promises of God, and even Jesus welcomed them. But I do want to challenge the youth-centeredness that many have become obsessed with. By that I mean that youth-centeredness that supplants either by programs or emphases a focus on the ordinary means of grace. I mean the youth-centeredness that maximizes entertainment and tries to engineer a social club. I mean that youth-centeredness that caters to the whims and peculiar taste buds of adolescents. I mean the youth-centeredness that tries to relieve parents from their responsibilities and thrust the full burden on the church. I mean the youth-centeredness that tries to meet every demand on the list of ever-changing demands. I mean that youth-centeredness that defines the life of a church by its youth group. Do we need to love, teach, correct, and exhort our youth? Absolutely! And sometimes that means reminding them they’re not the center of it all. As Michael Horton recently observed: “It is nothing new when young people want churches to pander to them. What is new is the extent to which churches have obliged.”
What’s Your Attitude?
The other thing Stanley’s comment reveals is a certain attitude that, again, I think probably reflects many people. It’s the attitude that assumes bigger is better. There’s the ever present temptation to want to measure the value of a church based on size–whether it’s numbers, baptisms, budgets, programs, etc. I’ll admit that even as a pastor of a small church in a tiny denomination (Stanley’s congregation is almost five times as large as the entire RPCNA), I feel that temptation acutely. But it simply isn’t true. Size is not an indicator of more or less success. That would be like saying my wife’s little backyard garden is less successful than the huge cornfield behind it because it’s smaller. No. Size has nothing to do with it. And we need to constantly keep that in mind.
So what makes for a truly successful church? Well, biblically speaking it’s faithfulness. Faithfulness to the ministry that Christ has commanded for the gathering and perfecting of the saints. It is our task to plant and water but the growth is wholly dependent on God. And in the culture in which we live it seems to me churches had better prepare to be doing more with less and less.
I don’t want this all to sound like a long rant without practical value. I think Stanley’s comment (whether he meant it or not) raises issues that are very important. We do need to teach our children to love the church. But I don’t want them to love it because it the church answers to their beck and call or satisfies all their unfledged preferences. I want my children to love the church because that’s where God is present, and where–through the preaching of the Word, sacraments and prayer–he is communicating his saving grace to them. We also need to guard our attitude regarding the size of our church. In God’s profound wisdom the church can accomplish its mission whether it’s big or small. In fact, let me put it this way: if your idea of the church and what it should be doing requires having big numbers, big budgets, big programs, or a big building, then you don’t have a biblical view of the church. So, Andy Stanley can think I’m selfish. But as for me and my house, we’re quite content in our small church.